Drug-free coalition gets big grant

The Monroe County Coalition for Drug-Free Communities was recently awarded a substantial grant which is set to help the organization achieve a number of goals it has long hoped for.

The grant was announced at the coalition’s Oct. 17 meeting.

Per a press release from the coalition, the $625,000 grant will be awarded over the course of the next five years, with annual allotments of $125,000 going toward the hiring of a full-time executive director and part-time youth director as well as new programming specifically aimed toward youth in Monroe County.

Coalition chairman Bill Rebholz offered an overview of the coalition’s activity over the years.

The organization, as he described, came about in 2014 as a slate of under-aged drinking deaths as well as an uptick in heroine and methamphetamine use was observed but was unable to be properly addressed by the county as a whole.

“Nobody was in charge. No one had purview over it. It was a vacuum, really,” Rebholz said. “If you asked the mayor of Waterloo, he knew a couple things, mayor of Columbia, the commissioners would know something. Law enforcement kinda knew from a crime standpoint what was going on, but nobody was really owning the issue, and that’s kind of what the coalition did. It decided that it would find out more about that issue, explore it and try to get some conversations going.”

Since its inception nine years ago, the coalition has served as a collective of interested parties in the community – including the Monroe-Randolph County Regional Office of Education and Human Support Services – coming together to identify and address substance abuse in the community.

Rebholz noted that one of the coalition’s main focuses has been awareness, with an annual forum among coalition members to make note of and discuss community needs.

“We’re not in the treatment business,” Rebholz said. “We’re a collaborative coalition. We’re not really the dots, but we help connect the dots.”

Still, the coalition has made solid progress in the last few years. Rebholz noted changes to local D.A.R.E. programs and other curricula, as well as establishment of the Second Chance Program which provides an alternative to suspension or expulsion for students caught with drugs or alcohol.

He particularly emphasized the coalition’s work with HSS to address substance abuse concerns in this area.

“You build community capacity,” Rebholz said. “In other words, there’s a lot more sensitivity to the issues, so we’re looking at it more carefully, we can catch things sooner and we’ve also identified resources to help people.”

This grant, which comes through the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention Drug-Free Communities Support Program, was acquired with HSS serving as the coalition’s fiscal agent, Rebholz said.

He noted that, while the coalition has operated quite well so far thanks to great generosity and volunteerism within the community, the grant funds will allow the group’s work to be more “deliberate and permanent.”

Rebholz said a major benefit will be seen as the coalition now has specific people to point to for work rather than relying purely on folks offering their own time.

“This is way different,” Rebholz said. “Now we have a board meeting, and we have some action items, and we know who to look to to see that they get done.”

He also spoke about the major program planned to come out of the funds: Operation Snowball. 

This program will, per the coalition’s press release, “empower student leaders to create a positive impact through prevention education, community advocacy and leadership development.”

Additionally, the coalition will be sending 10 local students each year to the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute for a biannual youth leadership training conference promoting positive change and healthy decision-making.

“Operation Snowball and those types of programs will be cultural changes because the kids will do it year over year,” Rebholz said. “Young people will come in, and when they graduate, they’ll have the skills and the leadership ability and knowledge of the issues to continue to advocate and be helpful.”

HSS President and CEO Anne Riley also offered her thoughts on the grant and the impact it will have on the coalition and community.

“It cannot be understated how important it is that the (drug-free coalition) will appoint an executive director to coordinate all the efforts of the coalition, including collaboration with schools and the community,” Riley said. “Having one point person devoted to this work exclusively, along with the funding and best-practice training and resources to back the coalition’s efforts, will most certainly get us closer to a number of the goals we have been striving for.”

Riley, too, spoke highly about the impact of Operation Snowball and the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, noting the importance of having young voices “front and center to the work we are doing in Monroe County.”

She further described how the grant will match up with HSS’s Mental Health Awareness & Training grant received last year which is being put toward training first responders and school personnel as well as other community members about mental health first aid – including care specifically for youth.

As both Riley and Rebholz described, having young voices centered in discussions of substance abuse has been hugely important for the coalition since it began, and this grant should help the organization access those voices as they have long wanted to.

“All the pillars are there, the hardest one is youth because people who are young don’t stay young very long,” Rebholz said. “I’ve been involved with it from the beginning, as have many of the board members, but we came in as adults and are still adults. But we need that young person’s perspective, and I think the grant, if it does nothing else, we’ll get a youth board out of this because of Operation Snowball. We’ll have a program by which we will not only educate and train young people on these issues, but we’ll have access to them, and they’ll be able to inform us about what they need.”

Beyond the five-year grant, Riley noted that the coalition will be able to apply for an additional five years of funding.

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web